Russ Henry moves compost from rotting to rulemaking in Minneapolis

Tired of dealing with fines and citations for having too much compost rotting in his backyard, Longfellow resident Russ Henry decided to fight city hall.

Photo: Turning the compost pile, adding leaves. (Photo by Eli SagorCreative Commons license)

Henry estimates that 10 to 20 percent of households in Minneapolis compost and that the city’s composting rules were outdated and impracticable. Instead of just complaining, he brought together a committee of local city food growers and environmental experts to create a plan that would better serve both the gardeners and the city.

Henry is a Member of the Minneapolis Food Council and the owner of Giving Tree Gardens, an eco-friendly organic gardening and landscaping service. He also owns a 13-acre farm cooperative with five greenhouses in Maplewood. He is, by any definition, a gardening expert. “We’ve built a city in the woods,” he said, and is hopeful that more citizens, through the city government, will act to keep the eco system alive.

The city didn’t fight back. Instead, spearheaded by 2nd Ward City Council Member Cam Gordon, experts from three different city departments (including the people who were handing out the fines,) joined with Henry’s specialists to come up with new ideas for creating rules for backyard composting that would be good for gardeners without causing problems for neighbors.

Gordon also brought in experts from state agencies and from Hennepin County, who, said Robin Garwood, Policy Aide for Council Member Gordon, already has a pretty good composting program.

For more information:
Minneapolis 2nd ward newsletter with links to composting information.
Giving Tree Gardens newsletter including sustainable city and composting information.

“We heard a few things from the folks we talked with,” said Garwood. “One of the main things was that the sizes of the compost areas allowed were smaller than people wanted. There was also clunky language on what was prohibited in compost.”

The new rules also fit into the City’s broader environmental strategies to create less waste and to grow more food inside the city, much like World War II’s victory gardens. “We picked out 11 different ways the ordinances would make more sense,” said Henry.

One of Henry’s biggest complaints was that the regulations didn’t allow him to make enough compost to meet his needs. “I had three four-by-four bins in the backyard and had just barely enough compost for my gardens,” Henry said.

Now, instead of restricting backyard compost to ‘an enclosed container(s) not to exceed five-fee by five-feet by five-feet for lots less than five thousand square feet’ – a typical Longfellow sized lot – the new rules allow for multiple compost containers up to 245 cubic feet for the small lots and more square footage for larger lots, enough for most gardeners. Instead of specifying exactly what can go into a compost – even requiring that trimmings had to be no more than one-quarter inch in diameter – the regulations now only stipulate an ‘appropriate mix of nitrogen-rich greens and carbon-rich browns.’

Compost will still have to be in self-contained bins, but they don’t need to be covered. “Composting should be an aerobic process,” said Garwood. “If the compost is not getting enough air, it starts to stink. The new rules make it easier to turn it and keep it moist, essential to proper composting. The top layer of the compost should be browns – dry leaves, straw or woodchips – which will keep the odor confined. We had required that the container be made of wood that wouldn’t rot, but to many gardeners, that meant chemically treated lumber.” That, he said could taint any vegetables grown and was unacceptable to many gardeners.

The new rules set different standards for small, medium and large household gardens and other rules for community or market gardens. “The large community and market gardens have more space, and since there’s no house on the lot, they need more compost,” said Garwood.

While the new regulations give composters more flexibility, urban farmers will not be allowed to infringe on their neighbors. Gardeners can still be fined if their compost attracts rodents or if it smells bad. Individuals who repeatedly break these rules could be required to take a class on how to properly compost.

“Instead of citing or just fining them, we can say that there’s a course where you can go and talk to people who know how to do this,” said Henry.

“This is a big victory,” he said. ‘The community and city have formed this wonderful team of earth friendly neighbors. It’s about time we’re rewarding eco-wise citizens instead of hitting them up with fines.’

The new law passed the City Council unanimously with almost no controversy and the mayor is expected to sign it soon.  But, Henry said, this is just the beginning. “We need to implement a city wide hauling program for compostable material. We still need to organize people with a community option. This is going to take a lot of organizing.”

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